Book Review: “Conscious Capitalism” by Whole Foods Founder John Mackey

Many corporations engage in philanthropy. At Whole Foods, it is an intrinsic part of their business model. The company has added value to millions and sparked a movement toward organic and local food.

The new book from John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods Market, is an inspiring defense of free enterprise. Scratch that. It is an exceptional guide to best practices in organizational leadership. No, scratch that as well. To be sure, it is all of this, but much more: “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business” is a treatise for a cultural revolution.

This is a book about purpose, and if Mackey’s first mission in life is to change the way people eat, his second is to change the way people think about business. This is captured in “The Conscious Capitalism Credo”:

We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.

But he is not merely championing free enterprise; he wants to popularize a business approach that unleashes the full potential of capitalism for social change. Accordingly, this highly accessible book is aimed at executives and entrepreneurs from all varieties of education, experience and political orientation. It is a manifesto for anyone who is interested in building a successful enterprise, pursuing a meaningful vocation and serving the world effectively.

Conscious Capitalism

A “CONSCIOUS” BUSINESS MODEL

Mackey places the blame for capitalism’s bad reputation squarely on the business community, which has engaged in “crony capitalism” (seeking government favors) and followed a narrow business model that makes profits the primary objective—particularly for investors and top executives. The result has been to undercut everything that makes business successful and meaningful. It is no wonder so many people find their jobs unfulfilling.

The underlying thesis of the book is that “conscious” businesses and leaders are purpose-driven and people-centered.

Drawing on the experiences of transformational companies such as Google, Amazon, Starbucks and many others (including, of course, Whole Foods), Mackey illuminates a key concept: the true power of free enterprise is a spirit of service to one another, which unites, motivates and empowers people to live a more fulfilled life.

From this premise, “Conscious Capitalism” calls for a paradigm shift in the way we think about every aspect of business.

The book outlines “four tenets” of conscious capitalism:

  1. Higher purpose and core values
  2. Stakeholder integration
  3. Conscious leadership
  4. Conscious culture and management

Higher Purpose

The starting point for any company is to articulate a purpose that inspires. Entrepreneurs “dream about how the world could be, and create a business to realize that dream.” For Whole Foods it is helping people enrich their lives through healthier food choices. For Southwest Airlines, it is giving more people the ability to see the world. For Google,it is organizing the world’s information and making it universallyaccessible. Having a clear purpose that connects business activity to the lives of real people provides a rallying point for the entire organization. It also provides a guide for company decisions. Many existing businesses are in need of re-envisioning what they are really about.

Stakeholder Integration

Companies should see their operations as an ecosystem of voluntary and beneficial cooperation involving many different stakeholders. They should also recognize that value does not necessarily take the form of money. Such intangible benefits as loyalty, community, respect and recognition are important to everyone. Conscious companies are attentive to the different kinds of value created through the synergy of win-win solutions with investors, employees, vendors, suppliers, communities and even the environment.

Conscious Leadership

Conscious leaders operate with an attitude of service and the intellectual capacity for integrating interests and democratizing decisions. Mackey contrasts this with a traditional, more centralized command-and-control model, which is not only less effective but also robs employees of making unique contributions. A manager seeks to control employees only if he does not value their judgment. There is a Hayekian flavor to this approach.

Conscious Culture and Management

Walk into any Whole Foods Market. You will notice that it is much more than a grocery store. The vibe is contagious: a company that boldly stands for a purpose and set of values tends to attract people with similar interests, who find meaning in their work. Add to this an environment where employees feel that their voices matter and you get an energized, cohesive culture.

When these four tenets are set in motion, companies tap into a wellspring of loyalty, innovation and personal fulfillment, which leads to greater profits, improved social capital and a better society.

AN EFFECTIVE MESSAGE AT A CRITICAL MOMENT

Many believed that the end of the Soviet Union spelled the ultimate triumph of democracy and capitalism. But recent years have shown that the debate is far from over. People continue to look to governments for solutions, and increasingly, many Americans see business as inherently greedy and incapable of addressing problems in society. Government is expanding today, while private opportunities subside.

This perilous trajectory has provoked a response from many organizations to highlight both the effectiveness and inherent morality of capitalism. The American Enterprise Institute launched the Values & Capitalism project, the Acton Institute ramped up its events and publications, and the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics was founded. Websites like EconomicFreedom.org and LearnLiberty.org were launched to help citizens understand the free market.

However, John Mackey has access to a relatively untapped audience, and his message is not just a lecture, but an inspiring vision—one already tested by companies that are changing the world. Mackey skips through the mechanics of capitalism and pierces straight into its heart: capitalism, properly practiced, is about people helping people.

If there is one drawback to the book, it is a pronounced dose of secular humanism. It is unclear whether Mackey subscribes to a particular creed, as he treats all faiths and philosophies as systems from which a person can draw to reach a higher “consciousness”—hence the title. Nevertheless, the book is overtly spiritual in the more ambiguous sense, and probably more broadly accessible because of it. Christians should find significant agreement with the book’s major precepts, and may even discover deeper theological connections.

Postscript: In the creation of this review, I decided to engage in some field research and visit my local Whole Foods Market. This particular location had a coffee and craft beer bar, which provided a comfortable writing spot. The woman behind the counter admitted she hadn’t yet read the book—my chance to get an unbiased account. When I asked what made her experience different from working at other companies, her response was simple but telling: “People seem to care more.”

More information about the “Conscious Capitalism” movement can be found at ConsciousCapitalism.org

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